Entry originally appeared in Peter Post’s E Word blog for The Boston Globe.

Have you ever wondered why table manners matter? One of the things I’ve learned teaching etiquette is to have a good reason for recommending a course of action. Rules for rules’ sake simply don’t work. People won’t change a behavior just because you tell them to, but give them a good reason for listening and for adopting a behavior, and then they are likely to do it.

So, when I was writing the first edition of Essential Manners for Men, and I came to the extensive topic of table manners, I wondered, what it is about table manners that makes them matter so much. And then it hit me: Eating is a gross activity and table manners help us to limit the grossness as we eat and drink.

Think about it for a minute. You’re on a date sitting across from someone you want to impress. You take fork and knife in hand and somehow cut off a bite-size piece of food. Then balancing it on the fork and keeping it there without dropping it on the plate or worse yet in your lap, you insert the food into your mouth. You then chew it into a mushy pulp and swallow it. And then you repeat the process thirty or so times. And all the time you are trying not to gross out the person you’re conversing with who is sitting across from you. Table manner are designed to help limit the grossness of eating.

How we hold a fork and knife, how we take a drink from a glass, how we take a bite of bread, how we remove a gristly piece of meat or an olive pit from our mouths – these manners exist to make it pleasant to eat with other people watching. Anytime you start to wonder what to do at the table, ask yourself how your action will look to the people you are with. Will it be gross? Will it make them wonder why on earth you are doing that? If you’re pretty sure it won’t gross them out, then you’re probably on the right track. In the long run, limiting the grossness of eating is table manners 101, and it is more important than knowing which fork to use.

Essential Manners for Men was first published in 2003 and became a New York Times bestseller for advice books. Essential Manners for Men 2nd Edition is available now.

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